Compact, convenient, and easy to operate, the audio cassette became the most widely used format for magnetic tape and dominated the field for prerecorded and home-recorded music during the 1970s and 1980s. Although superseded by digital players and recorders in the 1990s, the cassette tape remains the dominant form of sound recording worldwide.
Introduced in the 1940s, magnetic tape recording offered important advantages over revolving discs—longer playback time and more durable materials—but its commercial appeal suffered from the difficulties that users experienced in threading the tape through reel-to-reel tape recorders. One solution to this problem was the tape cartridge, which came in either the continuous loop format or the two-spooled cassette, which made it possible to rewind and fast forward with ease. By the 1960s there were several tape cartridge systems under development, including the four-track, continuous-loop cartridge devised by the Lear Company, the Fidelipac system used by radio broadcasters, and the "Casino" cartridge introduced by the RCA company for use in its home audio units. Tape cartridges also were developed for the dictating machines used in business.
In 1962 the Philips Company developed a cassette using tape half as wide as the standard 1/4-inch tape which ran between two reels in a small plastic case. The tape moved half the speed of eight-track tapes, getting a longer playing time but paying the price in terms of its limited fidelity. The Philips compact cassette was introduced in 1963. During the first year on the market, only nine thousand units were sold. Philips did not protect its cassette as a proprietary technology but encouraged other companies to license its use. The company did require all of its users to adhere to its standards, which guaranteed that all cassettes would be compatible. An alliance with several Japanese manufacturers ensured that there were several cassette players available when the format was introduced for home use in the mid-1960s. The first sold in the United States were made by Panasonic and Norelco. The Norelco Carry-Corder of 1964 was powered by flash-light batteries and weighed in at three pounds. It could record and play back, and came complete with built-in microphone and speaker.
Public response to the compact cassette was very favorable, encouraging more companies to make cassette players. By 1968 about eighty-five different manufacturers had sold more than 2.4 million cassette players worldwide. In that year the cassette business was worth about $150 million. Because of worldwide adherence to the standards established by the Philips company, the compact cassette was the most widely used format for tape recording by the end of the decade.
The fidelity of the cassette's playback was inferior compared to phonograph discs and the slower-moving reel-to-reel tape, consequently the serious audiophile could not be persuaded to accept it. The cassette had been conceived as a means of bringing portable sound to the less discriminating user—a tape version of the transistor radio. It was in this role that the cassette made possible two of the most important postwar innovations in talking machines: the portable cassette player or "boombox" and the personal stereo system with headphones, introduced by Sony as the Walkman.
These highly influential machines were based on technological advances in three fields: magnetic tape, batteries, and transistorized circuits. For the first time, high-fidelity stereo sound and high levels of transistorized amplification—capable of pouring out sound at eardeafening levels, hence the "boombox" name—could be purchased in a compact unit and at a reasonable price. The portable cassette player became one of the great consumer products of the 1970s and 1980s, establishing itself in all corners of the globe. Players were incorporated into radios, alarm clocks, automobile stereos, and even
shower units. The ubiquitous cassette made it possible to hear music anywhere.
The personal stereo was developed around the cassette and was intended to be the ultimate in portable sound—so small it could fit into a pocket. The stereo's headphones surrounded the listener in a cocoon of sound, eliminating much of the annoying noise found in urban life but often at the price of damaging the hearing of the listener. Since its introduction in 1979, Sony's Walkman has been copied by countless other manufacturers and can now be found in cassette and digital formats, including compact disc and digital tape.
In the 1990s several digital tape formats were introduced to compete with the audio cassette tape, and the manufacturers and record companies did their best to phase out the elderly technology by ceasing to manufacture both players and prerecorded tapes. Cassette tape was "hisstory" said one advertisement for noise-free digital recording, but consumers were unwilling to desert it. Although no longer a viable format for prerecorded popular music (with the exception of rap and hip-hop), cassette tapes live on in home recording and in automobile use.
Kusisto, Oscar P. "Magnetic Tape Recording: Reels, Cassettes, or Cartridges?" Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. Vol. 24, 1977, 827-31.
Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. Cambridge University Press, 1995.